The Case for Pink Pork

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

For more and more Americans, trying new foods is a point of pride—a way to show how sophisticated and open we are, a way for us to learn more about the world. But there are still certain lines that the vast majority of us will not cross, lines we may not even know can be gleefully leapt over in the interest of exploring new dishes, ingredients, and cuisines.

Like, say, eating raw pork.

Since the popularization of beef tartare in the 1950s and sushi in the 1980s, raw animal products have been a widely accepted luxury item in the US. But historically, raw pork was seldom, if ever, seen on menus, even in the most adventurous of nose-to-tail restaurants. In fact, there's no other non-poultry meat that is so insistently served well-done. Recently, though, that's started to change, albeit slowly and with great resistance.

"I've been serving and eating pork raw for years," says California chef Chris Cosentino. "Pork has really nice intramuscular fat, so it has a great mouthfeel." He serves a pork crudo, dressed simply with olive oil, Meyer lemon, mint, and radish, at his Los Angeles restaurant, Pigg. Meanwhile, at The Black Hoof in Toronto, a pork carpaccio is plated with maple blossoms (turns out they're edible, too!), pine nuts, and pickled onions. And across the pond, at London's Taberna do Mercado, pork tartare regularly makes its way onto the seasonal menu.

Raw pork may still be a restaurant rarity, but increasing numbers of chefs are starting to serve their pork cooked to medium-rare. Then again, many of them acknowledge that even faintly pink pork seems to freak the hell out of their diners.

The question is, should it?

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

"Trichinosis is an antiquated disease, and we've been cooking pork to medium for a long time now," says Chef Naomi Pomeroy, of Portland, Oregon's Beast. Like Pomeroy, other chefs I spoke to argue that medium-rare pork is more succulent, tender, and flavorful than its well-done counterpart. And collectively, these chefs are attempting to steer the gigantic steamship of American cuisine toward embracing it, too.

This should come as no surprise—raw and rare beef, lamb, venison, and fish have long been synonymous with upscale dining. In part, that's because cooking meat to a lower internal temperature speaks to a well-sourced, safe-to-eat, and often more expensive product. It can also drastically impact texture and flavor, helping the meat retain a tender, juicy consistency that high heat drives away. This is especially true of lean meats like pork.

So what's stopping us? The biggest misconception about raw pork isn't necessarily that it's dangerous, because, well, it can be. But exactly how dangerous it is—and why—is another matter entirely. Considering that the word "trichinosis" has been drilled into us since our childhoods, you might be surprised to learn that it's a virtually nonexistent risk. Trichinosis is a disease caused by roundworms of the Trichinella genus. It is horrible and repulsive, if not usually fatal; this is a worm we're talking about, after all. But it is also incredibly uncommon in this country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found only 84 confirmed cases in the five inclusive years between 2008 and 2012—none fatal—and, interestingly, only 22 of those could be traced to pork. (Game seems to be much more affected by trichinosis than pork, so you may want to think twice before digging into a bear-meat tartare.)

It's cliché to say, but you are significantly more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than afflicted by even a nonfatal round of trichinosis, at least in the United States. (Results from other countries vary; the USDA says that trichinosis is essentially extinct in countries like Denmark and The Netherlands, but in many countries it's more common. China is usually good for a few outbreaks each year, and in some provinces, especially in the west, the incidence is as high as 4% of the total population.)

"Yeah, you don't really have to worry about trichina anymore, but the other bacteria are still there," says Marianne Gravely of the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline. Gravely handles questions from the general public about how to safely buy, store, cook, and eat animal products, and it's probably worth noting that when I asked if she'd ever eat raw or pink pork, even from a trusted restaurant, she replied with a flat "No." "I would not eat it raw," she said. "And I don't think I'd eat it rare, either. I think I'd want it to be cooked to a safe temperature."

The USDA governs pork producers that are selling to consumers; restaurants, on the other hand, are subject to the regulations of local health departments. For home cooks, the USDA is extremely firm on its recommendations: Heat all pork products to a minimum of 145°F, and allow them to rest there for at least three minutes. That said, Gravely did note that there are methods that can kill bacteria without meeting those numbers; when cooked sous vide, for example, pork sits at a lower temperature for a longer period of time, which can be just as effective at eliminating food-borne illnesses (and it tastes remarkably good).

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The USDA's recommendations may seem strict, but its job is to try to prevent as many possible instances of food-borne illness as possible. And there are risks consumers should be aware of: About 30% of all foodborne illnesses from 1998-2008, a period for which CDC has extensive data, were caused by Salmonella in pork, along with 16% of all hospitalizations. But both those statistics lag far behind the reported numbers for chicken, and pork has rarely been implicated in mass outbreaks. Of the salmonella outbreaks, 20.7% were caused by "vine-stalk" produce like tomatoes, 19% were caused by poultry, 14.8% were caused by eggs, 7.3% by beef, and only 6.2% by pork. That said, the fact remains: There are plenty of pathogens in raw or less-cooked pork. The most common is Staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to all kinds of diseases, including some that can be life-threatening, like pneumonia and meningitis. Other pathogens that can be found in raw pork include Listeria (7.5% of domestic Listeria infections come from pork) and even hepatitis.

Then again, the risks of eating raw or pink pork are not notably worse than those that come with runny egg yolks, beef tartare, or cheap delivery sushi. And the payoff, chefs argue, is worth it. "When you get a nice thick pork chop, and it's slightly pink in the middle? That's great," says Andy Ricker, of the Pok Pok restaurants in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon. "Nice and juicy, delicious." The cut matters, too, the same way it does for beef: Some cuts are suited for long braises; others are best served as steaks and cooked pink; and some, yes, are great for raw preparations.

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

A pork chop, for example, doesn't have the kind of intramuscular marbling that a beef ribeye or strip steak has; some heat is necessary to break down the tendons. But that point, say chefs, is far short of the fully gray, well-done steak that's been served in this country for decades. "It's not quite as tender as beef, but, if it's the right cut, it has great flavor. I feel that you can feel the fat better in your mouth when pork is raw. When the pork quality is really top-notch, the fat should have a buttery consistency to it," says Cosmo Goss of The Publican in Chicago.

As for raw? "You don't want it too fatty, but you do want that intramuscular marbling," says Cosentino. "I like hind leg muscle because it has a nice marbling—just lean enough, and just fatty enough."

Food safety rules for restaurants are generally in accordance with the FDA's guidelines, not the USDA's, and assume a much higher level of skill, consistency, and cleanliness in a restaurant kitchen than in a home. As a result, it is legal for the overwhelming majority of US restaurateurs to serve pork at basically whatever level of doneness they want. That said, the customer does have to be warned that less-cooked pork, eggs, fish, or whatever else can come with an increased risk of food-borne illness. (These warnings might appear on the menu or on a placard somewhere in sight.)

But the fact that serving less-cooked pork is generally legal has not resulted in hordes of chefs racing to serve it, in contrast with, say, the re-legalization of foie gras in California in 2015. Almost all of the chefs I talked to mentioned that most customers still avoid it. Even Andy Ricker, whose restaurants have introduced Americans to Northern Thai cuisine that most didn't know existed, doesn't serve it—and he acknowledges that it's not uncommon to find raw pork larb in parts of Northern Thailand. But "I wouldn't try to serve raw pork," he says. "Regardless of whether it's safe or delicious or whatever, you don't want to go through the hassle of sourcing high-quality, beautiful pork, preparing it raw, and then having it not sell." That's despite the fact that his restaurants serve raw beef and fish. He even serves raw pork larb when he does private dinners for friends and other chefs. "When you prepare it properly, it actually tastes better raw, to me," he says.

Naomi Pomeroy and Cosmo Goss both serve pork cooked to around medium, rather than well-done, which allows the pork to retain a pink center and places it firmly at (or over) the USDA's recommended internal temperature. But both are quick to note that customers are frequently still scared. About a country rib dish that's always on his menu, Goss says, "We cook it medium and always tell guests that while they're ordering, but if they don't like it quite that pink, we gladly cook it more for them." Pomeroy isn't as able to change the way her food is served; with a set, six-course menu, her entire system would be thrown off if a customer, after hearing a warning about raw pork, decided to pass.

For some of these chefs, the possible health problems can be offset by doing something we really should all be doing in the first place: sourcing decent-quality pork, from pigs raised in safe, clean, and humane environments, slaughtered and packaged and shipped in a sensible and efficient way. "Sourcing for serving raw pork is extremely important," says Cosentino. "Knowing your product and your rancher is the most important thing—making sure that the pork has been treated and handled properly the whole time." Having a food system that produces such huge quantities of meat can lead to much scarier, larger outbreaks, as in a 2015 outbreak of salmonella-infected pork that led to a recall of over half a million pounds of meat.

"To me, this is why we have so many massive recalls of food—we've centralized our food production to such an extent that people are poisoned by the hundreds or even tens of thousands at a time," says Ricker. High-quality pork can, of course, still be infected, but it's equally true that food-borne illnesses are far less likely in a well-sourced cut. Some studies have indicated that organic chickens, not treated with antibiotics, have lower rates of salmonella than battery-caged chickens. Same with eggs, though these studies should not be taken as overall proof of this correlation; neither the CDC nor the USDA has performed large-scale studies to look into this. Still, everyone, including Gravely, acknowledges that careful handling can drastically reduce cross-contamination. This is all a way to say that, yes, there are risks to eating raw pork—but there are risks to organic spinach, too, and organic spinach doesn't turn the average eater's stomach.

"I don't want to live in a place where the only thing I'm allowed to eat is boneless, skinless chicken breasts that are vacuum-sealed," says Ricker. And raw or pink pork opens up a whole new world of possibilities for chefs; there are new textures, new flavors, new combinations to be found, all in an animal Americans are perfectly familiar with already. "I think beef is a lot leaner than pork, and I find that its flavor profile is not as unique. Pork lends itself well to seasonings, and if you get great-quality pork, you can really taste the characteristics," says Cosentino. His raw pork dishes have been described as buttery, meltingly tender, delicate, and downright delicious. Who wouldn't want to try that?